Inside life of UK's oldest working drag queen who led way for RuPaul's stars

Irish Mirror   06/08/2022 22:08

From 16th century Shakespeare to RuPaul’s Drag Race, stage performances by men dressed as women are far from new.

But it is the UK’s oldest working drag artiste David Raven – aka Maisie Trollette – who has paved the way for many of the younger, up-and-coming stars of today.

Now 88-year-old David’s life is explored in a new documentary, as we see him prepare to meet the world’s oldest drag queen… 91-year-old US star Darcelle XV.

In it, the pair are seen enjoying dinner before they take to the stage at Brighton’s Legends bar. Maisie explains: “I don’t call this work, it’s what’s keeping me going.

“God knows what I’d do if I didn’t do anything. Thankfully I’m able to do it.”

David is an icon of the drag scene

David’s act still delights the crowds – yesterday he was set to perform at Brighton Pride, as he has every year since 1973.

Born in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1933, he grew up in Suffolk, training as a grocer, publican and waiter, and doing stints at Gorleston Super Holiday Camp, Great Yarmouth, where he bumped into stars such as Lonnie Donegan and Matt Monro.

David came out in 1959, aged 26 – when being gay was still illegal.

He moved to London a year later. David says: “All my life I was frightened to come out. You were very, very in the closet and of course it was illegal. Gay wasn’t around.”

He later met James Court, with whom he started experimenting with drag.

The Queen of Drag
Ru Paul

As a duo, they won a talent competition at The Black Cap in Camden Town.

In the 1960s, David had met his life partner, banker Don Coull, and it was he who suggested that David glam up – and inadvertently gave him his stage name.

When David at first rejected his suggestion, Coull said he and Court looked like “a pair of trolls” – and The Trollettes were born.

Director Lee Cooper laments that there is little record of David’s early shows. He says: “Sadly there’s not much archive footage from way back when – particularly within the queer community.

“Everything was underground when David was first performing – it was a crime to be a homosexual.

David has performed every year at Brighton Pride, even the day after losing his partner to AIDS

“That was a challenge when we made the film, so that might be a reason why we haven’t already heard David’s story.”

Current Drag Race stars believe that without David and his alter ego Maisie they would not have been able to become the huge stars on the drag circuit thatthey are today.

Baga Chipz, 32 – who competed in the first series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK – says: “Maisie Trollette is a legend.

“I’ve known her for 18 years and she was one of the first drag queens I saw at [London’s] Vauxhall Tavern.

“She took me under her wing. She embraced new talent – she was never threatened because she was absolutely incredible.

Baga Chipz
Drag has long been a part of LGBTQ+ culture

“People need to realise Maisie was performing when it was illegal to be gay let alone be a drag queen, so she is a pioneer.

"If it wasn’t for people like Maisie Trollette I wouldn’t have the rights I have today, not just as a drag queen but as a gay man.

“She’s paved the way for drag around the world. She’s an icon. Thank you Maisie Trollette for giving us young kids a world where we can be accepted and not as scared to be ourselves.”

Drag Race UK star Tia Kofi, 31, who appeared on the second series of the BBC show, says Maisie is a fundamental part of drag history.

Speaking at the Attitude Awards, she said: “When Maisie was my age it would have been illegal.

Tia Kofi
David Raven

“But it’s people like Maisie, the elders of our community, who carry the queer history and give us that impetus to propel ourselves forward and keep fighting for what is right.”

David’s close friend and fellow drag artiste Dave Lynn reveals David is a fan of RuPaul.

Dave says: “I think he likes RuPaul because RuPaul has been around for longer than people remember.

“He had a big hit years ago with Elton John, he didn’t just do drag – and I think David really respected him. He’s probably one of the richest drag queens of the world. David would have loved that.”

Dave – who describes pal David as his hero – also explains how drag acts nearly died out during the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic emerged.

Among those it claimed was David’s partner Don. Dave adds: “David and I were hell-bent on keeping [drag] going. It was about talking to the audience and not ignoring [the epidemic].

“There were less pubs doing drag and less people going out. And David lost his partner Don, who was the love of his life.

British drag queen Baga Chipz

“I’ve never seen a man fall apart the way David did when Don died. But that made him even more determined to keep going and talk to people about it.

"After that he never stopped doing charity work. It’s incredible what he’s done.”

Director Lee adds: “David has never missed a Brighton Pride since 1973, and he didn’t the night Don died either. He went on stage and did his thing.

"He comes from that tradition of, ‘The show must go on’. I think that really helped him.”

But drag faced yet more threats. Dave explains: “In the 90s, dance music became popular. So the pubs where we performed realised the clubs were taking away the punters.

"So the pubs put the acts on at midnight but it didn’t work. Then coming up to the millennium it started to come back in fashion.”

David puts his make-up on for a show

He credits 1996 film Beautiful Thing, by Coronation Street writer Jonathan Harvey and which gave pub drag a small showcase, for helping restore interest.

Cooper speaks of David’s mischievous personality, warning that his slapstick cabaret way of working is slowly dying out.

But Dave Lynn is optimistic. He says: “What’s happening now is incredible. You can actually have a career out of drag.”

The film also explores David’s ageing – and his desire to continue working well into old age. Lee said: “There are very few tales of ageing. It was very important to tell that part of David’s story as well.

“Even in the general population age isn’t something we celebrate, which is sad.

“But when David’s out there performing, Maisie helps him and he becomes this incredible creature.”

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